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Water Conflict

Water conflict is a term describing a conflict between countries, states, or groups over an access to water resources.[1][2][3] The United Nations recognizes that water disputes result from opposing interests of water users, public or private.[4]

A wide range of water conflicts appear throughout history, though rarely are traditional wars waged over water alone.[5] Instead, water has historically been a source of tension and a factor in conflicts that start for other reasons. However, water conflicts arise for several reasons, including territorial disputes, a fight for resources, and strategic advantage.[6]

These conflicts occur over both freshwater and saltwater, and between international boundaries. However, conflicts occur mostly over freshwater; because freshwater resources are necessary, yet limited, they are the center of water disputes arising out of need for potable water. [7] As freshwater is a vital, yet unevenly distributed natural resource, its availability often impacts the living and economic conditions of a country or region. The lack of cost-effective water desalination techniques in areas like the Middle East [8], among other elements of water crises can put severe pressures on all water users, whether corporate, government, or individual, leading to tension, and possibly aggression. [9] Recent humanitarian catastrophes, such as the Rwandan Genocide or the war in Sudanese Darfur, have been linked back to water conflicts.[1]

Content Table


Water conflicts occur because the demand for water resources and potable water extend far beyond the amount of water actually available. Elements of a water crisis may put pressures on affected parties to obtain more of a shared water resource, causing diplomatic tension or outright conflict.

1.1 billion people are without adequate drinking water; the potential for water disputes is correspondingly large. Besides life, water is necessary for proper sanitation , commercial services, and the production of commercial goods. Thus numerous types of parties can become implicated in a water dispute. For example, corporate entities may pollute water resources shared by a community, or governments may argue over who gets access to a river used as an international or inter-state boundary.

The broad spectrum of water disputes makes them difficult to address. Locale, local and international law, commercial interests, environmental concerns, and human rights questions make water disputes complicated to solve – combined with the sheer number of potential parties, a single dispute can leave a large list of demands to be met by courts and lawmakers.

Factors increasing the risk of water-related conflicts within or between states

  • A strong socio-economic dependency on the resource, where scarcity or floods threaten economies and livelihoods (e.g. the agricultural sector).
  • Low adaptive capacities of institutions and individuals, including ineffective responses to conflicts and inadequate technical, human, or financial resources.
  • Politicised water management structures, reflecting asymmetrical power relations and inequalities.
  • Limitations in access to water are perceived as a threat to sovereignty or security.
  • Previous conflicts, dividing population groups or states along political, religious, cultural, ethnic, or other lines. These may be ‘reactivated’ in the context of disagreements over water management.
  • Lack of data and information and/or insufficient capacities for data generation and interpretation, leading to different assumptions of parties regarding the characteristics of a resource.

Economic and trade issues

Water’s viability as a commercial resource, which includes fishing, agriculture, manufacturing, recreation and tourism, among other possibilities, can create dispute even when access to potable water is not necessarily an issue. As a resource, some consider water to be as valuable as oil, needed by nearly every industry, and needed nearly every day. [10] Water shortages can completely cripple an industry just as it can cripple a population, and affect developed countries just as they affect countries with less-developed water infrastructure. Water-based industries are more visible in water disputes, but commerce at all levels can be damaged by a lack of water.

International commercial disputes between nations can be addressed through the World Trade Organization, which has water-specific groups like a Fisheries Center that provide a unified judicial protocol for commercial conflict resolution. Still, water conflict occurring domestically, as well as conflict that may not be entirely commercial in nature may not be suitable for arbitration by the WTO.


Historically, fisheries have been the main sources of question, as nations expanded and claimed portions of oceans and seas as territory for ‘domestic’ commercial fishing. Certain lucrative areas, such as the Bering Sea, have a history of dispute; in 1886 Great Britain and the United States clashed over sealing fisheries [11], and today Russia surrounds a pocket of international water known as the Bering Sea Donut Hole. Conflict over fishing routes and access to the hole was resolved in 1995 by a convention referred to colloquially as the Donut Hole Agreement. [12].


Corporate interest often crosses opposing commercial interest, as well as environmental concerns, leading to another form of dispute. In the 1960’s, Lake Erie, and to a lesser extent, the other Great Lakes were polluted to the point of massive fish death. Local communities suffered greatly from dismal water quality until the United States Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972. [13]

Water pollution poses a significant health risk, especially in heavily industrialized, heavily populated areas like China. In response to a worsening situation in which entire cities lacked safe drinking water, China passed a revised Water Pollution Prevention and Control Law. [14] The possibility of polluted water making it way across international boundaries, as well as unrecognized water pollution within a poorer country brings up questions of human rights, allowing for international input on water pollution. There is no single framework for dealing with pollution disputes local to a nation.


According to Aaron Wolf, et all.[15] there were 1831 water conflicts over transboundary basins from 1950–2000. They categorizied these events as following:

  • No water-related events on the extremes
  • Most interactions are cooperative
  • Most interactions are mild
  • Water acts as irritant
  • Water acts as unifier
  • Nations cooperate over a wide variety of issues
  • Nations conflict over quantity and infrastructure

The Pacific Institute also has a database of water conflicts, which are categorized as follows:

  • Control of Water Resources (state and non-state actors): where water supplies or access to water is at the root of tensions.
  • Military Tool (state actors): where water resources, or water systems themselves, are used by a nation or state as a weapon during a military action.
  • Political Tool (state and non-state actors): where water resources, or water systems themselves, are used by a nation, state, or non-state actor for a political goal.
  • Terrorism (non-state actors): where water resources, or water systems, are either targets or tools of violence or coercion by non-state actors.
  • Military Target (state actors): where water resource systems are targets of military actions by nations or states.
  • Development Disputes (state and non-state actors): where water resources or water systems are a major source of contention and dispute in the context of economic and social development


International organizations play the largest role in mediating water disputes and improving water management. From scientific efforts to quantify water pollution, to the World Trade Organization’s efforts to resolve trade disputes between nations, the varying types of water disputes can be addressed through current framework. Yet water conflicts that go unresolved become more dangerous as water becomes more scarce and global population increases. [16]

United Nations

The UN International Hydrological Program aims to help improve understanding of water resources and foster effective water management [17]. But by far the most active UN program in water dispute resolution is its Potential Conflict to Co-operation Potential mission, which is in its third phase, training water professionals in the Middle East and organizing educational efforts elsewhere. [18] Its target groups include diplomats, lawmakers, civil society, and students of water studies; by expanding knowledge of water disputes, it hopes to encourage co-operation between nations in dealing with conflicts.

UNESCO only just recently published a complete map of transboundary aquifers. [19] Academic work focusing on water disputes has yet to yield a consistent method for mediating international disputes, let alone local ones. But UNESCO faces optimistic prospects for the future as water conflicts become more public, and as increasing severity sobers obstinate interests.

World Trade Organization

The World Trade Organization can arbitrate water disputes presented by its member states when the disputes are commercial in nature. The WTO has certain groups, such as its Fisheries Center, that work to monitor and rule on relevant cases, although it is by no means the authority on conflict over water resources.

Because water is so central to agricultural trade, water disputes may be subtly implicated in WTO cases in the form of virtual water[20], water used in the production of goods and services but not directly traded between countries. Countries with greater access to water supplies may fare better from an economic standpoint than those facing crisis, which creates the potential for conflict. Outraged by agriculture subsidies that displace domestic produce, countries facing water shortages bring their case to the WTO.

The WTO plays more of a role in agriculturally-based disputes that are relevant to conflict over specific sources of water. Still, it provides an important framework that shapes the way water will play into future economic disputes. One school of thought entertains the notion of war over water, the ultimate progression of an unresolved water dispute -- scarce water resources combined with the pressure of exponentially increasing population may outstrip the ability of the WTO to maintain civility in trade issues[21]

Notable conflicts

Water conflicts can occur on the intrastate and interstate levels. Interstate conflicts occur between two or more neighboring countries that share a transboundary water source, such as a river, sea, or groundwater basin. For example, the Middle East has only 1% of the world's freshwater shared between 5% of the world's population.[22] Intrastate conflicts take place between two of more parties in the same country. An example would be the conflicts between farmers and industry (agricultural vs industrial use of water).

According to UNESCO, the current interstate conflicts occur mainly in the Middle East (disputes stemming from the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers among Turkey, Syria, and Iraq; and the Jordan River conflict among Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestine territories), in Africa (Nile River-related conflicts among Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan),[2] as well as in Central Asia (the Aral Sea conflict among Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan).

Some analysts estimate that due to an increase in human consumption of water resources, water conflicts will become increasingly common in the near future.[23][24]

Related Articles

Further reading

  • Dombrowsky Ines. Conflict, Cooperation and Institutions in International Water Management: an economic analysis. Edward Elgar editions, Great Britain, 2007, ISBN 9781847203410
  • UNESCO. Urban water conflicts: An analysis of the origins and nature of water-related unrest and conflicts in the urban context. Published by the International Hydrological Programme (IHP) of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 2006
  • Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research (Department of Political Science, University of Heidelberg). Conflict Barometer 2007: Crises – Wars – Coups d’Etat – Negotiations – Mediations – Peace Settlements, 16th annual conflict analysis, 2007
  • Murakami Masahiro. Managing Water for Peace in the Middle East: alternative strategies. United Nations University Press, 1995, ISBN 92808 08583


  1. ^ a b Tulloch, James (August 26, 2009). "Water Conflicts: Fight or Flight?". Allianz. Retrieved 14 January 2010. 
  2. ^ a b Kameri-Mbote, Patricia (January 2007). "Water, Conflict, and Cooperation: Lessons from the nile river Basin". Navigating Peace (Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars) (4).
  3. ^ Wolf A., et al.
  4. ^ United Nations Potential Conflict to Cooperation Potential, accessed November 21, 2008
  5. ^ Peter Gleick, 1993. "Water and conflict." International Security Vol. 18, No. 1, pp. 79-112 (Summer 1993).
  6. ^ Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research (Department of Political Science, University of Heidelberg); Conflict Barometer 2007:Crises – Wars – Coups d’Etat – Nagotiations – Mediations – Peace Settlements, 16th annual conflict analysis, 2007
  7. ^ [1] Freshwater: lifeblood of the planet, accessed November 21, 2008
  8. ^ Murakami, Masahiro. 1995. Managing Water for Peace in the Middle East: Alternative Strategies, New York: United Nations University Press. Accessed online November 16, 2008]
  9. ^ [2] United Nations Potential Conflict to Cooperation Potential, accessed November 21, 2008
  10. ^ [3] Pentland, William. “The Water-Industrial Complex,” Forbes, May 14, 2008. Accessed November 21, 2008.
  11. ^ The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2007, Columbia University Press.
  12. ^ Dunlap, William W. The International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law, Volume 10, Number 1, 1995 , pp. 114-135(22)
  13. ^ 33 U.S.C. § 1251 et seq.
  14. ^ [4] China Daily, Updated February 29, 2008. Accessed November 21, 2008.
  15. ^ Wolf A., Yoffe S., Giordano M., International Waters: Indicators for Identifying basins at risk, PCCP project, UNESCO, 2003
  16. ^ [5] Brooks, Nina. “Impending Water Crisis in China,” Arlington Institute. Accessed November 28, 2008.
  17. ^ [6] UNESCO: International Hydrological Programme, accessed November 21, 2008.
  18. ^ [7] United Nations Potential Conflict to Cooperation Potential accessed November 21, 2008
  19. ^ [8] UNESCO publishes first world map of underground transboundary aquifers, accessed November 21, 2008.
  20. ^ Morrisette, Jason J. and Douglas A. Borer. "Where Oil and Water Do Mix: Environmental Scarcity and Future Conflict in the Middle East and North Africa." Parameters, Vol. 34, Winter 2004 pp 94-96.
  21. ^ Morrisette, p. 99
  22. ^ Sutherland, Ben (March 18, 2003). "Water shortages 'foster terrorism'". BBC News. Retrieved 14 January 2010. 
  23. ^ "Worldwide battle for water (video)". BBC. Retrieved 2009-03-24. 
  24. ^|publisher=BBC |date=2008-08-19 |accessdate=2009-03-26

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